Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 19, 2022
Proper 7, Year C
Psalms 42 &43
To watch Today’s service click here. The Sermon begins at the 41 minute mark.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him…”
Back in the fall I set what I thought was a very modest goal for us as a church. I stood up here in front of you all and said:
“My goal for this year is to help nurture you and our church back to health with God’s help.”
That was it. No biggie. No grand plans to pay off the mortgage, restore our programs to their former glory, or grow the church by 20%.
After a year and a half of Covid, school closures, church on-line, racial reckoning, elections, an insurrection, and the loss of half of our pastoral staff, I thought it best to take a beat.
“Let’s take a breath,” I said.
“Let’s make time to grieve,” I said.
“Let’s not rush into trying to get everything up and running and back to normal, but take some time to just be with what is,” I said.
Because, you see, somehow I thought the worst was over. I thought we were on the other side of something. I thought we’d been through enough. I guess, on some level, (and please don’t tell anyone I said this because it’s embarrassing) I thought I finally had things under control.
Maybe you thought so too. I mean our Admin Board even gave me a mug the night Todd left that said, “You Got This!” And you know what? I thought I did.
I had no plans to bring the shelter back into our building, because I wanted to get our programming back in place. I though vaccines for kids would roll out a lot faster and covid would finally burn itself out which would make it possible to get the children’s ministry up and running again on all cylinders. I didn’t see Omicron or war in Ukraine or Buffalo or Uvalde on the horizon.
Honestly, I thought we were about to enter into a time of relative peace where we would find the space to just work on putting ourselves and our church back together. We’d get our feet under us. We’d get organized. We’d get going again. But apparently life doesn’t work that way. The hits, the needs, the setbacks, the heart break: it just keeps coming.
Honestly, it took finally getting Covid myself to really impress on me that healing does not happen on a schedule. It will not be accomplished because you have set it as your goal or your highest intention or crafted a Pinterest worthy vision board. Getting better isn’t simply a matter of will or planning or even desire.
Sometimes life knocks you down, and getting back up… takes as long as it takes.
Which is why I chose the psalm before us today over the healing story in the gospel or the narrative about Elijah. I chose Psalm 42 & 43 because whoever wrote this was still deep in the midst of trial when they composed this lament, and change was not on the horizon.
The psalmist can remember better days in the past and they are longing for better days in the future, but right now, in the present, things are hard. Their “tears are their food day and night.”
They are hurting…really hurting…and nobody – not even God – is going to change that any time soon. But, and this is so important, the Psalmist is not hopeless…and I think I know why.
They are hurting but not hopeless because they know, deep down, that they are not alone.
The Psalmist talks an awful lot about being forgotten by God, abandoned by God, and ignored by God. They are distressed by the absence of God, the silence of God, the inaction of God. But who is the psalmist talking to from the beginning of the psalm to the bitter end?
That’s a little weird when you think about it, right? Complaining about someone’s absence to the someone who isn’t there.
But I think we’ve all done it. It is one of the great paradoxes of faith that we tend to turn to God and get really serious about praying to God, when God feels furthest away, but we do.
And friends, I believe those prayers are holy.
And I believe those prayers are heard.
Because when we cry out to God some part of us is clinging to the belief that God is still there – deep calling to deep – and that little bit of belief makes all the difference.
Over the winter I took a class on how to be a resilient pastor, and one of the things we talked about was the need to pray and be real with God about what we are going through, the need to mourn and acknowledge all that is not right with ourselves and the world.
We turned to the the psalms and talked about the difference between lament and complaint – and this is the really important thing I want to share with you this morning – because there is a difference, a difference between lament and complaint and it helped me understand the psalms in a a whole new way.
When we complain, we complain about things or about people or about God as if they’re not there. You wouldn’t complain about someone right in front of them, would you? No, that would be rude.
You wait till they leave the room, right? Yeah. I’m not saying we should do it that way. I’m just saying that’s what we do. You don’t complain about a person to their face.
But when we lament, we cry out to God. When we lament we cry with God. The psalms aren’t songs of complaint about God, they are songs of lament with God. They aren’t ancient anonymous yelp reviews. “God: totally absent. Left me hanging. One star. Would not recommend.”
They are impassioned pleas to be swept up by God, like a small child with a skinned knee reaching up to the parent right in front of them for comfort. The psalms of lament capture the aching desire of us all to be held by God, known by God, signed, sealed, and delivered by God.
The psalmist doesn’t talk about God like God is not there, but talks to God as if God is, whether they can feel God’s presence or not. There is a hope and a trust underpinning their despair; the trust that even if they can’t hear God, they know God can hear them.
The hope that weeping may last for the night but joy will come with the morning. The faith that silence, death, and despair will not get the last word. Life and healing will win out in time…win out in the end…because God is in this with us for the long haul, in this with us forever.
We complain about. We lament with. Complaining leads to blame and shame. Lament leads to hope a trust. And I guess what I want to say is that as hard as things have been, I feel hope and trust taking root in us and in our community, hope and trust in God and hope and trust in each other.
We’re not back up on our feet. Everything is not all better. We have not been healed. But we’re still in this together. We are lamenting together.
In unhealthy churches when people are hurting and anxious you don’t hear a lot of lament. What you hear are complaints, and it’s always the same culprit…a mysterious cabal of people known as “them.” “They did this,” or “they did that.”
I worked in one church where I had to constantly keep reminding people that we were congregationalist. There was no “they,” running things into the ground behind the scenes. There was only “us,” and if we couldn’t work together, we had only ourselves to blame.
But I don’t hear people complaining about other people like that here at First Churches. What I see is people acknowledging all that is hard and lamenting it together without blaming or shaming ourselves or each other.
What I see is a group of people who are honest about the hurt and the challenges before us, but deep in this work of healing together. We’re not making it any harder on each other than it has to be, and for that I am grateful.
In a sermon, years ago, the preacher Tom Long told a story about a minister who lost his wife very suddenly the day before Easter. Somehow he made it to church the next day, but he couldn’t preach and he couldn’t sing. His grief was so great, he said, that he couldn’t even believe in the resurrection.
But he came because he knew they could. And so he asked his congregation to come alongside him and be with him. He asked them to proclaim the resurrection for him, to sing for him, to believe for him, trusting that if they could help carry him in his hurt, in time he would be able to help carry them again too (https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2020-10-26/psalm-43/).
And that’s the sort of spirit I see here. We’re not healed, but we’re hopeful. We’re not there yet, but we’re not alone. We have God and we have each other. And First Churches, as hard as this is, because we’re in it together, there is nowhere else I’d rather be. Thank you. Amen.